A Bullet For The General

Director: Damiano Damiani
Gian Maria Volonté, Klaus Kinski, Martine Beswick, Lou Castel

I consider myself a real movie buff. Though I may only update this web site with a new movie review about three times a month, in my private time I watch a great deal of other movies. On average I watch about one movie every day or two. Yes, I really love to watch movies, whether it is in order to inform you readers of a certain title or simply for my own personal pleasure. Because I have watched so many movies, it is likely that my tastes are more demanding than the average Joe. Though I have had more of an opportunity to see bad movies than probably you, I have also had more of the opportunity to see good movies. Because I have seen so many good movies, and I clearly know the potential of multiple movie genres, I am more demanding of any movie I sit down to watch. For example, take the action genre. I don't know about you, but I am no longer willing to accept a standard take on this genre. I want to see multiple explosions, big bloody wounds coming from big gun battles, and people beating and kicking the crap out of each other. And if along the way, women take off their clothes and get into hot sex scenes, all the better. When it comes to comedy, I don't want to see the same jokes all over again. I want to see humor that's fresh, daring, and funny. And if along the way, women take off their clothes and get into hot sex scenes, all the better. When it comes to serious drama, I want to see realistic and interesting characters deal with topics that I can relate to. And if the female characters of the drama are motivated by various circumstances to take off their clothes and get into hot sex scenes, all the better.

Yes, when it comes to the art of the motion picture, I know what I like. But having seen more than my share of movies that I ended up regretting that I saw, I also know what I don't like to see in a movie. Much of what I don't like to see in a movie comes from the fact of seeing these things done badly too many times. But I have to admit that there are some things I generally don't like seeing in movies that are because of how I have been shaped by other things in my life over the years. For example, one thing I generally don't like seeing in a movie is a character who has been jailed for something he didn't do. I occasionally do watch one (and I've reviewed some here on this web site), but I am personally afraid of this situation happening in my personal life. I don't know why that is, but I still haven't watched movies like The Shawshank Redemption. But there is one thing I dislike more seeing in a movie than that, and that is politics. This probably comes from my own personal politics - or rather, a lack of them. I have never once voted in any kind of government election, and I don't consider myself overly liberal or conservative. Personally, I consider just about all politicians corrupt and/or incompetent. As you can probably see from what I have just told you, I usually have little patience for someone preaching some form of politics, whether it is at city hall or in a motion picture. Whatever side a political filmmaker happens to be on, I find that their arguments are very one sided and come across as unfair. I find myself repeatedly asking the filmmaker as I watch their politically-charged movie, "Okay, but what about....?" And usually, there is no answer to that particular question at that moment or any time later in the movie.

I do occasionally sit down to watch a politically-charged movie, but when I do, I usually demand that the movie sugar-coat things so that any messages are easier for me to swallow. This is not a new technique; playwright George Bernard Shaw did this with his plays even before the A Bullet For The Generalmotion picture industry took shape, and these plays had great success with audiences back then and continue today. Certainly, humor is a great way to sugar-coat any political messages in a movie. But there are other kinds of cinematic sugar-coating I have found appealing. Take the movie I am reviewing here, A Bullet For The General. Normally I wouldn't find a movie about revolution and politics terribly interesting, but its advertised backdrop was one of a spaghetti western. Having a love of Italian westerns, I simply could not resist giving it a whirl in my DVD player. The setting of this pasta western is Mexico in the early 1900s, which of course was when the Mexican Revolution took place. Two bandits, one named "El Chuncho" (Volonté, For A Few Dollars More) and his brother "El Santo" (Kinski, Salt In The Wound) run a ragtag bunch of rebels who make guerrilla attacks on prime targets hoping to gather enough arms to sell to a revolutionary general named Elias (Jaime Fernández, Guns For San Sebastian). One day while ambushing a train, El Chuncho and his fellow bandits come across a handcuffed American named Bill Tate (Lou Castel, The Cassandra Crossing). Tate claims to be a prisoner, and after proving his worth along with some fast talking afterwards manages to join up with El Chuncho and his men. But it doesn't take long for Tate to show that he may not be what he claims to be, not just with his somewhat prudish behavior, but also that he eventually manages to take the leadership position of the gang away from El Chuncho. Just what are Tate's intentions?

It may seem from that above plot synopsis that A Bullet For The General maintains a somewhat tricky balancing act between the characters played by Volonté, Kinski, and Castel. But as it turns out, that is not quite the case. Kinski fans will be the most surprised by how the movie actually unfolds, because they will find that their idol, despite being second billed in the opening credits, actually doesn't have a great deal of screen time. He instead makes sporadic appearances throughout the movie. Kinski fans may also be disappointed by the fact that his character is far from the kind of crazed roles he's best known for. Actually, Kinski does well playing a more "normal" type of person (despite his long haired, hippie-like appearance), though his performance is somewhat marred by being dubbed over by some voice actor who sounds nothing like Kinski's real voice. The balance of the movie is handled by Volonté and Castel, with most of their scenes dealing with both characters interplaying with each other and their relationship growing and changing form as time progresses. Some reviewers have claimed that there are hints of some sort of repressed homosexual attraction Volonté's character has for Castel's, but I didn't see it that way. The screenplay instead uses their characters and their various collaborations and clashes to make various political statements. (More about this in the next paragraph.) That is not to say that there is no chemistry between the two actors. Volonte's El Chuncho character is an extremely crude and rough character, while Castel's Bill Tate character is ultra smooth and slick. Both actors fit these two opposites personalities extremely well, and you can believe how the unsophisticated El Chuncho is manipulated again and again by the savvy Bill Tate.

As I said, the two chief actors in A Bullet For The General contribute greatly to making their characters plausible, enough that when we examine the movie more closely, we in the audience are more likely to be sold by the politics that the screenplay injects into these characters. It probably comes as no surprise that the character of Bill Tate represents foreign powers, most of all the United States, interfering in foreign countries' internal business. (Remember, this movie was made while the Vietnam War was starting to heat up.) Bill Tate is revealed to be working for the Mexican government, a government that is shown more than once to have little regard for the peasants and other low-ranking members of Mexican society. And his working for the Mexican government is not motivated by thoughts that the Mexican government is doing the right thing, but for what personal gain (read: money) he can get out by interfering. Indeed, at one point in the movie, the government forces comment that Americans may have not much heart, but plenty of dollars. There is also another interesting observation in the movie about foreigners' opinions on Americans, that being despite there being Americans like Bill Tate, there are still a great number of foreigners who consider America and all Americans to be sort of magical. For example, at the beginning of the movie, a small Mexican boy joyfully runs up to Bill Tate and wants to know what this American thinks of Mexico. Other Mexicans in the movie regard Bill Tate with a good amount of instant respect, even if they quietly grumble about this gringo interfering in their lives. But the movie is not just a critique on America and Americans, but also on various other people and governments. The present way of life for Mexicans is certainly examined, and is shown to have its faults, like rich landowners who keep their thumb down on the peasants that work for them. But many of the Mexicans who are involved in the rebellion against this government and type of life are shown to be of a bad sort as well, ranging from raping the wives of landowners to chaining a captured soldier on a train track in a futile way to try and stop a passing train.

It probably comes as no surprise that the character of El Chuncho can be considered to represent the people in a revolution. Though it may be a surprise by for how long A Bullet For The General makes him an unsavory character. At the start of the movie, he is holding up trains and raiding army headquarters to gather guns for the revolution not because he believes in the revolution, but to sell the guns for money - making him no better than Bill Tate, who is also working for money. El Chuncho also can't read or do simple mathematics, and when a village is holding an election for mayor, he pushes a young and inexperienced man into the position. There is of course an eventual realization by the character as to what is really important, but even when that happens it doesn't exactly redeem him for all of his past behavior and character traits. And at the end of the movie, while his motivations may have changed for the best, we don't exactly have hope that he'll be able to succeed with them, despite the decisive action he makes in the movie's final few seconds. Clearly, the screenplay seems to be telling its audience to not only be smart enough not to be seduced by power and riches, but smart enough to also know what to do in order to make positive changes to one's society. I have the feeling that some readers by this point may have the wrong idea about A Bullet For The General, believing that it may be too political to be entertaining. Let me assure you that while its politics may often show, the movie does sugar-coat its messages by having the ingredients that a great spaghetti western has - great scenery, top notch production values, a superb musical score by Luis E. Bacalov, and lots of action and tension. I just mention those things as a footnote not to diminish their merit, but because I usually discuss in depth those things while reviewing a spaghetti western, and I thought primarily discussing other things would be a change of pace. Let me assure you that if you are into spaghetti westerns as much as I am, A Bullet For The General delivers one hundred and eighteen minutes of spaghetti with tasty yet atypical spice in the sauce.

(Posted March 1, 2019)

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See also: Bandidos, Compañeros, The Five Man Army